Historic Bridges

Bryan Bridge US Hwy 20/83 over the Niobrara River 3.3 Miles Southeast of Valentine Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 290 ft. Roadway Width: 23.8 ft. 3-Span, Rigid-Connected Pratt Deck Truss BUILT: 1931-32 by the Yant Construction Company S020 19981 Bryan Bridge When engineers for the Nebraska Bureau of Roads and Bridge began considering the design of a new bridge to carry U.S. Highways 20/83 over the Niobrara River in 1931, they first considered a 160-foot through truss with deck girder approaches or a 300-foot continuous truss. But they eventually scrapped these designs in favor of a 290-foot arched cantilever deck truss. “Since it was considered that any structure of ordinary appearance would mar the natural beauty of the banks and immediate surroundings the arched cantilever spans were adopted in spite of the slightly greater cost,” highway department engineer Josef Sorkin explained in 1934. Named in honor of Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, the proposed structure consisted of a 145-foot arched span over the river, flanked by symmetrical anchor spans and supported by dumbbell-shaped concrete pedestals. A contract to build the bridge was awarded late in 1931 to the Yant Construction Company of Omaha. Using a steel superstructure fabricated by the Paxton and Vierling Iron Works in Omaha, the contractor completed the bridge the next year. Since its dedication in September 1932, the Bryan Bridge has carried traffic in this lightly trafficked highway, without substantial modification. “Aesthetic treatment of Nebraska bridges is seldom economically justifiable due to the alluvial character of the streams – typically wide and shallow,” Josef Sorkin wrote in 1934. “The comparative cost of substructures is so small that only in very rare instances spans beyond 60 feet in length are acceptable from the point of view of cost. For such limited span lengths the steel deck girder type is most useful. While everything is being done to make such bridges as sightly as possible, spectacular achievements of merit are obviously limited. “With its steep banks and beautiful streambed, the Niobrara River lent itself well to a dramatic structural statement, and the Nebraska highway department took full advantage of this rare opportunity to flex its engineering muscles. Perhaps the most handsome highway bridge in the state, the Bryan Bridge is a singular exercise in highway bridge aesthetics in the state.

Brewer Bridge Brewer Bridge County Road over the Niobrara River 14.7 Miles East of Valentine Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 152 ft. Roadway Width: 14 ft. 1-Span, 8-Panel, Pratt Through Truss TYPE: Pin-connected Pratt through truss BUILT: 1899 by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company C001611805 In November 1898 the Cherry County Commissioners received a complaint about the deteriorated condition of the Berry Bridge over the Niobrara River, located about fifteenmiles east of Valentine. They met in special session onthe bridge,condemned it as unsafe, and in Januaryadvertised for competitive bids for a new 150-foot steeltruss on cylinder piers. Submitting no fewer than six different plans, the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio, received the contract for $4,580. A WIBCo crew began work on the structure that spring, completing it by early October. The truss functioned in place for over three decades before the countyreplaced it with a heavier span (the Berry State Aid Bridge) in 1921. The 1899 span was then moved to thesite of the old Brewer Bridge, a casualty of flooding five years earlier. Here it has carried infrequent traffic as the oldest of Cherry County’s trusses.

Twin Bridge County Road over the North Loup River 7.9 Miles Northwest of Brownlee Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 129 ft. Roadway Width: 15.6 ft. 8-Span, Steel Stringer TYPE: Steel I-beam stringer BUILT: 1900 by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company COE1603510P Twin Bridge The Cherry County Commissioners received a citizens’ petition in May 1899 for a bridge over the North Loup River in the remote southern part of the county. The commissioners approved the petition, soliciting proposals a year later for this and two other spans. Competitive bids were received in July 1900 from nine bridge builders. The county awarded the construction contract to the Wrought Iron Bridge Company for all three structures for a cost of $3500. Based in Canton, Ohio, the Wrought Iron Bridge Company was one of the two largest vehicular bridge erectors in the country during the late 19th century, rivaling the giant King Iron Bridge Company in its nationwide trade. Though not as active in Nebraska as King, WIBCo did erect spans in the southeast part of the state and in Cherry County. Few WIBCo structures are known to have survived in Nebraska, however. Completed in 1900, the Twin Bridge is among the best preserved of the remaining WIBCo structures, due in large part to its isolated location. It is distinguished as the oldest remaining steel stringer vehicular bridge in the state. Bell Bridge Bell Bridge County Road over the Niobrara River 11.9 Miles Northwest of Valentine Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 188 ft. Roadway Width: 13.8 ft. 1-Span, 8-Panel, Pratt Through Truss BUILT: 1903 by the Canton Bridge Company C001611605P The Cherry County Commissioners began considering construction of a bridge at the Bell crossing of the Niobrara River when they visited the site in January 1902. Located twelve miles northeast of Valentine, the crossing was situated about midway between the existing Berry and Brewer bridges. In March the county ordered a pin-connected Pratt truss from the Canton Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio. A Canton crew began excavating for the abutments soon thereafter and, using steel rolled in the Cambria mills, completed this 150-foot span by November. Total cost: $5,020. Later called the Allen Bridge, the truss was one of four in the county left intact after a flood in 1916. It has carried vehicular traffic for over 90 years and has retained an excellent degree of physical integrity. As one of the oldest, longest and best-preserved of Cherry County’s remarkable group of through trusses, the Bell Bridge is an excellent example of what was once a mainstay vehicular truss type: the pinned Pratt through truss.

Borman Bridge Country Road over the Niobrara River 2.3 Miles Southeast of Valentine Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 131 ft. Roadway Width: 12.7 ft. 1-Span, 7-Panel, Pratt Through Truss TYPE: Pin-connected Pratt through truss BUILT: 1916 by the Canton Bridge Company COE1606105P Borman Bridge On the afternoon of February 16, 1916, ice on the Niobrara River began to break up as the river’s level quickly rose. The resulting flood rolled downstream, pushing the ice pack in front of it and “virtually eating away the thick ice and destroying the county bridges,” lamented one observer. By the time it passed through the county two days later, the flood had swept away fourteen bridges and damaged or destroyed seven others. Only the Bell Bridge, the Berry Bridge and two others remained passable. In the aftermath, the county commissioners declared an emergency and began replacing the damaged spans. On March 24, they visited the wreckage of the Borman Bridge with a representative of the Canton Bridge Company, which held the county’s annual bridge contract. Two days later the commissioners ordered a 130-foot-long replacement span from Canton. Using steel rolled by Cambria, the Ohio-based company fabricated and erected this pinned Pratt truss within a month, although the county did not pay its $4,230 cost until two years later. Borman Bridge, detail The pin-connected Pratt through truss was the bridge of choice for medium-scale river crossings in Nebraska during the early 20th century, as the Cherry County Commissioners realized in 1916. Virtually all of the replacement spans built that year were medium-span Pratts. Due in part to this natural calamity, the Niobrara River bridges represent the best-preserved group of trusses in the state. The Borman Bridge is significant for its association with the 1916 floodand for its representation of this mainstay structural type.

Berry State Aid Bridge Berry State Aid Bridge

County Road over the Niobrara River 10 Miles Northeast of Valentine Cherry County, Nebraska Total Length: 153 ft. Roadway Width: 15.7 ft. 1-Span, 8-Panel, Pratt Through Truss TYPE: Rigid-connected Pratt through truss BUILT: 1920-21 by the Pioneer Construction Company COE1637705 Built in 1899, the Berry Bridge northeast of Valentine was one of only four spans left intact over the Niobrara River in the wake of the disastrous 1916 flood. After Cherry County rebuilt the last of its wrecked spans in 1917, the commissioners approached the Nebraska Department of Public Works for state aid to replace the existing Berry truss. Aid was approved the following year. In December 1919 the county advertised for bids for a new 20-ton-capacity bridge either a 120-foot or a 150-foot span at this location. The Pioneer Construction Company was the only bidder to submit proposals for both span lengths, and the Omaha-based company was awarded the construction contract for the150-foot span. Despite damaging the truss by a misplaced dynamite blast during erection, Pioneer completed the Berry Bridge by June 1921. The 1899 truss was then moved to the Brewer crossing. The Berry Bridge has had some recent substructural and bank protection work, but the truss remains unaltered. It is historically significant as a regionally important crossing of the Niobrara River and as one of the few state aid trusses remaining in Nebraska.

This information provided by www.fhwa.dot.gov

Historical Markers in Cherry County

Discover the rich history of the area by visiting each of the historical markers scattered across the Sandhills of Cherry County.

Opening the Sandhills Marker

Opening the Sandhills

The first ranch in this area was set up on the Niobrara River about five miles south of here in 1877. E. S. Newman established his ranch to sell cattle to the government for delivery to the Indians at the Pine Ridge Agency to the north.

The sandhills, later to become the heart of Nebraska’s cattle country, were shunned by Newman and his contemporaries who set up ranches on their edge. The cattlemen believed the region of shifting sand dunes, with few streams or other known sources of water, would not support cattle and was even dangerous for humans.

In the spring of 1879, Newman and his fellow ranchers were forced to enter the sandhills hoping to salvage a small portion of the stock that had drifted south of the Niobrara River in the severe winter storms. They found the cattle had both shelter and good grass and water in the hills. Since then Nebraska’s sandhills have acquired a thicker and more stable covering of grass. This rolling country with its plentiful vegetation and its diamond-like lakes nestled between the hills has become one of the most productive cattle-raising regions in the world.

Location:

42° 47.999′ N, 102° 0.787′ W. Marker is near Bayonne, Nebraska, in Cherry County. Marker is on U.S. 20, on the right when traveling east. 


Bryan Bridge Marker

Bryan Bridge

This arched cantilever truss bridge, connected in the center with a single pin, is the only one of its kind in the United States. It was built in 1932 by the Department of Public Works and named by the local citizenry in honor of Governor Charles Wayland Bryan. The bridge is 289 feet long, has a 24-foot roadway, and cost $55,564. It was designed by Josef Sorkin, who immigrated from Russia in 1923 and graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Engineering in 1929.This particular design was chosen because it was aesthetically compatible with the surrounding environment of the Niobrara River Valley. The Bryan Bridge was selected as the “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge of 1932 in Class C” by the American Institute of Steel Construction, and was the first bridge between Wisconsin and the Pacific Coast to receive such an award.

This particular design was chosen because it was aesthetically compatible with the surrounding environment of the Niobrara River Valley. The Bryan Bridge was selected as the “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge of 1932 in Class C” by the American Institute of Steel Construction, and was the first bridge between Wisconsin and the Pacific Coast to receive such an award.

In 1988 the bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995 it was designated as a State Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the Nebraska Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Location:

42° 49.897′ N, 100° 31.53′ W. Marker is near Valentine, Nebraska, in Cherry County. Marker is on U.S. 20 3 miles west of U.S. 83, on the left when traveling west. 


Fort Niobrara

When a Sioux Indian reservation was established north of here in Dakota Territory in 1878, early settlers in the region grew fearful of attack. They requested military protection, and in 1880 Fort Niobrara was built a few miles east of present-day Valentine. There was no later Indian trouble in the immediate area, and the Ghost Dance religion in the early 1890’s brought the last major Indian scare. Among the officers once stationed at Fort Niobrara were John J. Pershing, later commander of U.S. forces in World War I, and Frederick W. Benteen, a survivor of General Custer’s ill-fated staff. Fort Niobrara was an active post until 1906. In 1912 part of the original military reservation was set aside as a national game preserve. It has since become Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, with ranges maintaining sizable herds of buffalo, elk and Texas longhorn cattle.

Cherry County, a center of cattle production, was organized in 1883 and named for Lieutenant Samuel A. Cherry, a Fort Niobrara office killed in the line of duty. Valentine, founded in 1882, was named for early-day congressman E. K. Valentine.

Location:

42° 50.984′ N, 100° 32.082′ W. Marker is in Valentine, Nebraska, in Cherry County. Marker is on U.S. 20 at milepost 198, on the right when traveling west.


DEWITTY/AUDACIOUS

Spread out along the North Loup River west of here, DeWitty, later known as Audacious, was the largest and longest-lasting African American settlement in rural Nebraska. The settlers, including former slaves who had fled to Canada before the Civil War and their descendants, began to arrive in 1906-07, attracted by the 1904 Kinkaid Act’s offer of 640 acres of free land in the Sandhills.

The settlement included a church, store, barber, post office, and baseball team, the North Loup Sluggers, which competed against teams from nearby communities. Three rural schools educated the children. On Independence Day, residents of DeWitty and nearby Brownlee would come together for a rodeo, baseball game, and picnic.

The 1910 census recorded 82 black residents. The number of occupied African American homesteads peaked in 1914, although some settlers had already canceled or sold their claims and moved away. The black homesteaders, like their white counterparts, found 640 acres in this semi-arid region insufficient for ranching and marginal for farming. The last African American resident left the area in 1936. The last parcel still owned by DeWitty settler descendants was sold in 1993.

Located in the Sandhills of Cherry County, Nebraska, the settlement of DeWitty was established in 1908 by black homesteaders who constructed housing made of stacked sod.  These settlers farmed some of the least hospitable land in the state.  The families were spurred to the area by the 1904 Kinkaid Act, which allowed settlers to claim large-but-undesirable parcels of land with poor irrigation and little vegetation.  Those who accepted the challenge were known as Kinkaiders.

Among the first to arrive in 1907 were Charles Meehan, born in 1856 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of white parents who had immigrated the previous year from Counties Tipperary and Fermanagh in Ireland. Charles had moved with his mother to Canada as a youngster. Joining Charles in the move from Canada to Nebraska was his wife Hester Catherine Freeman, born in Canada in 1856 to a Canadian father and a mother from Baltimore, Maryland. According to Catherine Meehan Blount, their granddaughter, Charles and Hester left Canada for Nebraska in 1885 with their oldest children and the families of Joshua Emanuels, George Brown, and William Crawford. Other early black homesteaders included Clem Deaver and Robert “Daddy” Hannahs. Meehan’s granddaughter, Ava Speese Day, later wrote about their experiences on the Plains in Sod House Memories.

They settled in an area along the North Loup River near Brownlee, calling their town DeWitty, after the first postmaster, Miles DeWitty.  In 1916, a change in postmasters prompted a change in the town name to Audacious, followed by a post office relocation two years later to the town of Gard.

For a while, the homesteaders found some success as ranchers raising beef cattle, mules, poultry, and hogs.  A few had dairy cows and sold surplus product in nearby Seneca. Even though they were in the proximity of the North Loup, few of the black settlers were able to claim land with water rights or even grazing meadows.  So most had to purchase hay for feeding and lease easements for water access, adding to their financial burden.  To make ends meet, some men worked as freighters or laborers for neighboring white ranchers while women washed, worked in kitchens, or served as midwives.

The town of DeWitty/Audacious included a general store, the St. James A.M.E. Church, and three schools.  Books were borrowed from the State Library at Lincoln through a program to service rural families. Other supplies were purchased through trips to Brownlee or Seneca, or mail order from Sears, Roebuck and Company.  During the early 1920s, the town had an all-black baseball team called The Sluggers, which played several undefeated seasons.  However, by that time, most of the original homesteaders had found the land unprofitable and had left the area.  In the late 1980s, only one ancestor of a black settler still owned land along the North Loup.

On April 11, 2016, a dedication ceremony for a new Nebraska State Historical Marker in Cherry County commemorated DeWitty as the longest and most successful African-American rural settlement in the state.


Midair Collision of P-47 “Thunderbolt” Fighter Planes, 1944

At 10:45 a.m. on February 5, 1944, 1st Lt. John B. Beatty of Sandusky, OH, and 2d Lt. Earnest W. Fanslau of Mantua, NJ took to the air from the Ainsworth Army Air Field in two P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter planes for an instrument training flight. Lt. Fanslau’s canopy was covered so he could fly solely by instruments, while Lt. Beatty flew nearby as Fanslau’s observer. During the flight Lt. Fanslau made an unexpected right turn that Lt. Beatty could not avoid. Rancher Everett Morris did not see the P-47s collide but he heard the impact and observed the planes falling from the sky southeast of his ranch buildings. Lt. Beatty’s P-47 went into a flat spin, fell almost straight down, and landed on its back with very little scattering of the wreckage. Lt. Fanslau’s P-47 caught fire and exploded in midair, spreading debris over a considerable area. Both pilots were killed. The two crash sites are within half a mile of each other in the Nebraska Sandhills, approximately 15 miles south of Wood Lake near Cherry County’s eastern border.

Location:

42° 38.111′ N, 100° 14.24′ W. Marker is in Wood Lake, Nebraska, in Cherry County. Marker is on U.S. 20 at milepost 221 east of Main Street, on the right when traveling west. This marker is located in the hamlet of Wood Lake 

Centennial Hall Museum

Centennial Hall, Valentine’s Historical landmark built in 1897 and now the oldest standing high school building in the state of Nebraska, houses a heritage museum of area historical artifacts. The ornate style of architecture reveals the past and will likely never be revived in today’s structures as the cost of the fine craftsmanship in construction would be prohibitive.

The museum has twelve rooms, each with a different theme, including the Hallock Bell collection with over 1,700 bells, the Days of Yesteryear room, the Military room, and many more.

The building is also rumored to be haunted and has been the site of several paranormal investigations. Occasionally, a vacant rocking chair or the sound of music when there is none testify to a ghostly presence.

The museum, located at 3rd and Macomb Streets, is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thursday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment.

  • Phone: 402-376-1081

Centennial Hall got its start as a high school in 1897 and is now a museum. The story goes that when the building was still a school, a girl was killed in 1944 after someone poisoned her clarinet reed. Teachers soon began reporting seeing her ghost before the school was converted. Now people say that music can be heard from the old music room, even though there are no instruments anymore.

Cherry County Historical Society Museum

The Cherry County Historical Society Museum is a virtual treasure trove of the history of Cherry County, beginning with how it was settled and by whom. The museum has a variety of displays devoted to early-day cattlemen, Fort Niobrara, Native Americans, U.S. Wars, and the daily life of the pioneer era. An archival library includes historic newspapers and genealogical records. Located at the corner of Main Street and Highway 20, the museum is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thursday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. or by appointment.

  • Phone: 402-376-2015

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

Five miles east of Valentine on Highway 12 is Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to a herd of bison, a herd of elk, and a prairie dog town. A driving tour there will allow you to find all three on most occasions. A beautiful three-quarter-mile hiking trail near the Niobrara River will take you by Fort Falls—one of the area’s prettier waterfalls—and wind down along the scenic river.

As the name indicates, the refuge is the site of a frontier fort. Fort Niobrara was active from 1879 to 1906 and was used as a cavalry remount station until 1911. The visitor center on the grounds has photos and a history of the fort. Also on display are fossils of long-jawed mastodons, giant bison, and three-toed horses.

Today, Fort Niobrara is a National Wildlife Refuge for bison, elk, and prairie dogs. However, as the name indicates, Fort Niobrara was not always for wildlife. In the late 1870s, settlers in northern Nebraska became fearful of an attack by the Lakota Indians from the newly created Rosebud Reservation.

In response, the US government created Fort Niobrara to “contain and control” the Lakota people of the area. At it’s peak in the early 1890s, the Fort garrisoned around 500 men. When the Spanish American War began in 1898, though, the Fort lost much funding and was left with less than 100 men.

The Fort would never reach its early 1890s heights again, and it was closed down only eight years later. Despite its relatively short time of operation, the Fort had a large impact on the region around Valentine. The protection it provided settlers drew many people to the area and its crack down on cattle thieves in had a great economic impact on the ranchers of the county. In fact, Cherry County was named after one of the lieutenants stationed at the Fort: Samuel A. Cherry.

A group picture of Fort Niobrara's 25 Infantry regiment
Fort Niobrara’s 25th Infantry Regiment

But its closing in 1906 was not the end for Fort Niobrara. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt made the area a National Reservation via executive order and used the foundation left behind by the Fort to jump-start the project. Originally intended to protect birds native to the sandhills, the refuge expanded to also oversee and maintain multiple herds of bison, a large population of elk, and a prarrie dog town.  These are certainly not the only animals that can be found on the Refuge, but they are the only ones they manage.

Fort Niobrara is great place to discover and learn about sandhills wildlife, and with over 19,000 acres of land to explore, there is plenty to see. Open from sunrise to sunset, the Refuge has plenty of activities available that have been pleasing visitors for years.

Hikes such as a the “strenuous,” mile-long Fort Falls hike and a 3.5 mile-long self-guided tour of the area near the visitors center allow guests to observe the Refuge’s beautiful landscapes, foliage, and wildlife.

Speaking of visitor’s centers, the Refuge’s has many exhibits on the history of the fort as well as fossils from interesting, ancient animals such as the mastodon and  giant bison. The visitors center also puts on many exhibits throughout the year. For instance, the Bison Roundup and Kid’s Fishing Day are visitor favorites. Activities such as tubing down the Niobrara, fishing, and hunting are also available to guests at the Refuge.

Finally, a scenic drive through the park is perfect if you want to quickly experience the beauty and wonder of the Refuge. I very much encourage you to give the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge a visit. Not only is it filled to the brim with interesting history, but the the park itself, and the animals it houses, are simply breathtaking.

Arthur Bowring Ranch State Historical Park

The history of Sandhills ranch life is on display at Arthur Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, a 7,202-acre ranch located three miles north and east of Merriman off Highway 20. Former U.S. Senator Eve Bowring managed the ranch until her death in 1985 at age 92. Her wish was to preserve the ranch as a turn-of-the-20th-century working cattle ranch and living history museum.

It’s a great opportunity to see ranch life up close. A visitor center houses artifacts and memorabilia of early ranching days. Corrals, barns, bunkhouses, and even a sod house are open to the public.

video courtesy of NE Game & Parks

The park also boasts a collection you might not expect on a ranch. Eve Bowring was a world traveler and passionate collector of antique china, silver, and glass. Her amazing collection is displayed inside the ranch house.

Buildings and grounds are open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The grounds are open from 9 a.m. to sunset the rest of the year. A state park permit is required. 308-684-3428.

While in the area, don’t miss Cottonwood Lake State Recreation Area, a half-mile east of Merriman on Highway 20 and a half-mile south. Fishing, boating, and tent camping are available. A state park permit is required.